Alice B. Sheldon, Barry Malzberg, David Gerrold, Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr, Jeffrey D. Smith, Joanna Russ, Julie Phillips, Mary Hastings Bradley, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Raccoona Sheldon, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips was one of the finest literary biographies it has been my pleasure to read. Naturally, Interzone decided it should be appreciated with a double review, so Maureen Kincaid Speller and I agreed to split the job between us. First published in Interzone 205, August 2006, Maureen’s review concentrated on the life, while mine concentrated on the career (though there were inevitable overlaps). You can read Maureen’s review here at Paperknife, while mine follows the cut.
James Tiptree, Jr. was a meteor in the science fiction firmament that blazed very briefly but oh so brightly. The first stories appeared in 1968 and attracted little attention, but early in 1969 Galaxy published ‘The Last Flight of Doctor Ain’, and suddenly everything changed. This was a short, intense story about a man who loves planet Earth so much that he sets out to kill all its human inhabitants. It is an extraordinary piece of work which laid out all the characteristics we would come to identify with Tiptree: tightly controlled prose with not a wasted word, plotting that set the reader directly in media res and forced them to work out the context for themselves, and above all the curiously erotic equation of love with death. This was not doom-laden, but it was uncompromising. The science fiction world sat up and took notice.
Over the next few years a rapid-fire succession of such stories fizzed in the popular imagination: ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ which won a Hugo, ‘Painwise’, ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’ which won a Nebula, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ which won both a Hugo and a Nebula, and in 1972 the masterpiece, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ which would have won a Nebula (or at least should have done) but for Tiptree withdrawing it from the ballot. This was a time when the new creative freedoms won in the 1960s were bearing fruit and writers were producing intelligent and challenging fictions about sex, fictions that smashed the icons and ignored the conventions. This was a time when the narrow, inward turning world of science fiction had been bust open by the new waves of Britain and America, allowing in a new awareness of literary style and possibility. This was a time when feminism was suddenly having a huge effect not just politically but in literature also, and especially in science fiction. This was a time when writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison and others were producing some of their best work. And still nobody was doing anything like Tiptree. This was out of left field, dazzling, daring, taking some of the most tired clichés of the genre, aliens and spaceships, and setting them on edge so that they seemed to take you into areas no-one in science fiction had ever explored before. Two women in the jungle who ignore their male would-be protector and choose to go with the aliens? This was unprecedented.
The sheer exuberant originality of the stories was enough to capture the eager imagination of science fiction writers and readers, but there was something else which helped to make Tiptree the focus of everyone’s attention: his absence. Nobody met James Tiptree, there was no photograph, there was no biography. The mystery, coupled with such startling work, was too tempting to ignore. Fans began to construct their own biographies. The stories arrived from McLean, Virginia where the CIA had its headquarters, and the stories revealed an easy familiarity with the world of spooks, so Tiptree was clearly a CIA operative. The stories often featured the wild places of the world, which Tiptree must have visited on undercover operations. At one point David Gerrold tried to visit the address the stories came from, but encountered only a startled middle-aged woman who denied any knowledge of Tiptree; this was enough to start a rumour that Tiptree was really a woman, a rumour enthusiastically taken up by Harlan Ellison, though more, I suspect, in the spirit of goading a reaction than because he really believed it. Most people unquestioningly agreed with Robert Silverberg when he wrote in the introduction to Tiptree’s second collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, ‘there is … something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing’. Most people at this point included the wide circle of people with whom Tiptree, ‘Tip’ as he liked to be known, carried on an enthusiastic written correspondence, writers like Le Guin, Ellison, Russ, Barry Malzberg and the young fan Jeffrey D. Smith. For Smith’s fanzine, Phantasmicom, Tiptree submitted to an interview which spoke of upbringing in Chicago, early experience in Africa and India, time in the army during World War II, all supporting the very masculine persona. When Smith renamed his fanzine Khatru, Tiptree agreed to be one of only two male writers (the other was Delany) to take part in a major and very influential symposium on feminism in science fiction. Tiptree’s comments upset some of the other contributors, and he withdrew.
Along the way, Tiptree mentioned that his mother had been a famous writer. In 1976 he announced that his mother had just died. Smith checked the Chicago papers and found the obituary for Mary Hastings Bradley, survived by her daughter Alice B. Sheldon. The secret was out, but if fandom was dumbstruck, the effect on Tiptree was even more profound. In this masterful biography, Julie Phillips points out the quality of Tiptree’s fiction had already begun to trail off as Tiptree succumbed to pressure from editors to write a novel. Novel length did not suit the intensity and the rhythm of Tiptree’s prose, and the knock-on effect was beginning to show. Nevertheless it is also noticeable that although Tiptree went on to produce two novels and several collections of stories after her identity was revealed, never again would they approach the richness or the resonance of the early work. Something in the writing fed on the secrecy, on the licence granted by a masculine identity.
Julie Phillips’s biography brings us as close to understanding what that something might be as we are ever likely to get. She explores the pampered childhood in wealthy Chicago society, the big game expeditions in Africa when Alice was a frightened little girl, Mary’s success as a writer, the failed early marriage, life in the WAC during the Second World War and success in photo-identification which brought Alice together with her second husband, Ting, a period of chicken farming after the war then a brief stint in the lower bowels of the CIA (where Ting had a long and successful career), the latent lesbianism, a late interest in psychology (Alice took her PhD just as her first stories were being accepted), the writing, the depressions, the dependence on ever more potent cocktails of drugs, the toils of growing old, and finally the killing of Ting followed by her own suicide. It is a powerful story of an extraordinary life and told as vividly as we could possibly wish. Out of it emerges a convincing and disturbing portrait of someone unhappy in her self and able to function best only by becoming other. It is a dangerous practice to use an author’s biography as a way of explaining their fiction, yet it is nevertheless true that much in this conflicted life fed into the fiction, and the fiction could only really thrive amid the conflict.
We can never know how James Tiptree, Jr. went from journeyman to master of prose and plot within the space of four or five stories, that is part of the enduring mystery of being a writer; but through this vivid and readable biography we can discover something of what made her the finest chronicler of sex and death, of human evil and human hope, of loving the alien, that science fiction has ever produced. She blazed in our heavens for a very short time only, but her influence remains strong, profound and inescapable, and this is a superb monument to Raccoona Sheldon, to James Tiptree, Jr. and to Alice Bradley Sheldon.